On February 13th 2013, Moldovan prime minister Vlad Filat announced that his Liberal-Democratic Party of Moldova (LDPM) was withdrawing from the 2010 coalition agreement from which the pro-Western Alliance for European Integration (AIE) was established. This decision was a surprise for many analysts and journalists writing on Moldovan issues, as well as for Chișinău’s partners. But above all it was a surprise for Brussels.
On the eve of the final negotiations of the European Union Association Agreement and just nine months before its planned signing, Filat decided to make a move which may cause his LDPM to lose power, and Moldova, regarded as the “success story” of the Eastern Partnership project, could change its orientation and turn towards the Russian Customs Union. By deciding to leave the coalition, Filat put his own political career in danger, along with the future of his country’s European integration. The risk was very high but the stakes might seem worth it from the prime minister’s point of view.
In essence, it was all about increasing the role of the LDPM in the coalition and about eliminating Filat’s main political rival, Vlad Plahotniuc. But it seems that the prime minister overplayed his hand. Although he achieved some of his aims, he burdened his country with the threat of early elections, which could undermine all that has been achieved in Moldova in the last three years.
The echo of gunshots
Filat’s decision, although surprising, was a logical consequence of a scandal which shook Moldova early this year. The scandal unfolded during a hunt organised in late December 2012 in the Moldovan nature preserve called “Pădurea Domnească” near the town of Făleşti, in which a young Moldovan businessman, Sorin Paciu, was accidentally shot dead.
The matter was serious as the hunt involved high government officials, including the prosecutor general Valerii Zubko. Both the hunt itself and its tragic consequences were kept secret, and the scandal would probably never have been revealed were it not for Sergiu Mocanu, the leader of the AntyMafia movement, who received information about this event from still unknown sources. Mocanu made the scandal public.
The people were outraged. What angered them the most was perhaps not so much the tragic death of Paciu, but the attempt at hiding these facts from them. It very soon became clear that those who had taken part in the hunt used their influence and position to silence police officers and hospital workers in the town where the fatally wounded businessman was taken.
Zubko became the primary suspect, and both Prime Minister Filat and his allies targeted their accusations at him. Finally, in late January, Zubko was dismissed from his post by the Moldovan parliament, although this did not mean the end of the scandal. It served as a prelude to resolving a much more important conflict which has long been smouldering on the Moldovan political scene: the conflict between Filat and the first deputy speaker Vlad Plahotniuc.
Vlad vs. Vlad
Pressing for Zubko’s dismissal, Filat explained that a person suspected of involvement in unintentional homicide cannot serve as prosecutor general. But it seems clear that his true purpose was different. The prime minister wanted to change the balance of power within the coalition in favour of his own party. In accordance with the coalition agreement from 2010, the three parties forming the AIE divided between themselves ministerial and other positions in the government administration.
The liberal democrats of Vlad Filat were given the foreign ministry and the internal revenue service, while the second largest grouping in the coalition, the Democratic Party of Moldova (PDM), was entitled to nominate its members for the post of prosecutor general, parliament speaker and head of the anticorruption bureau (CNA).
It is no secret that the Democratic Party, formally ruled by Marian Lupu, was unofficially controlled by the well-known Moldovan oligarch and Filat’s long-time business and political opponent, Vlad Plahotniuc. The coalition agreement put the prime minister at a disadvantage. It gave his main opponent the possibility to influence the actions of prosecutors and anticorruption services, which could be used against the prime minister and his party. And these fears were not unfounded.
In autumn of 2012, there were reports in the media saying that the CNA was collecting discrediting information about politicians close to Filat. The “Sorin Paciu” scandal gave the prime minister a handy pretext to seize control of the prosecutor’s office from Plahotniuc’s hands and oust him from politics, and perhaps even send him to prison.
For this reason, once Zubko was successfully removed from office, the LDPM put forward a bill which would take away the right to nominate the prosecutor general from the Democratic Party and have this office filled by way of a competition. Filat thus prepared the ground for attacking Plahotniuc and expelling him from the position of deputy speaker. But he could not count on the support of the Democratic Party and the third coalition member, the Liberal Party (PL), so he needed an ally from outside the coalition.
A risky game
Vlad Plahotniuc is not only an opponent of Filat, but also a traditional enemy of the Party of the Communists of the Republic of Moldova (PCRM). Turning to the Communists for support in the vote against the deputy speaker was a logical move, but it violated the coalition agreement. It meant forming an alliance with an enemy of the coalition against one of its members. By deciding to take this step, Filat questioned the very existence of the coalition.
On February 13th, during a press conference organised for this purpose, Filat announced that his party was officially leaving the AIE. He stressed, however, that he did not want early elections or a coalition with the Communists and that his aim was to renegotiate the coalition agreement with its current members. He also claimed that the coalition must be cleared of people who had contributed to the criminalisation and deformation of the Moldovan political scene. Although he never mentioned Plahotniuc’s name, it was obvious that his accusations were directed at the deputy speaker.
After the press conference, Filat officially announced that on February 15th, parliament would vote on removing Plahotniuc from his post. As expected, the motion passed thanks to the votes of the PCRM, LDPM and independent deputies. It also turned out that Filat’s fears concerning the use of the CNA and prosecutors against his colleagues were quite justified. Just a few hours before the vote to remove Plahotniuc, officials from the anticorruption services entered the seat of the government and the internal revenue, and arrested the head of the FISC, Nicolae Vicola. Nevertheless Filat achieved his goal.
An ideal plan?
It seemed that Filat’s plan, aimed at increasing LDPM’s clout within the coalition and removing Plahotniuc, was going rather smoothly. Although the Liberal Democrats had left the coalition, they still controlled most of the government nominations and Filat retained all his prerogatives as prime minister. Plahotniuc lost the office of deputy speaker and the next prosecutor general was to be selected through a competition, rather than named by the Democrats.
Moreover, Filat could hope that both the PDM and the PL would play along with his intentions and enter into negotiations on a new coalition agreement, more favourable for the LDPM. With opinion polls showing a relatively low support for these parties, they did not want early elections. A refusal to join the negotiations would mean leaving the government, which was also not in their interest. Filat was triumphant.
But the situation changed diametrically on March 5th when the Communists, previously just looking from the outside in, unexpectedly filed a motion for a vote of no confidence against the government of Vlad Filat. Supported by the PCRM, the Democrats and independent deputies, the motion was passed; radically altering the situation both of Filat himself and of the entire country of Moldova.
A race against time
After Filat’s cabinet was recalled, the situation in Moldova gained new momentum. As the constitution provides, the president will consult with the political parties and then present two candidates for the top government office. The deputies will then have 45 days and two attempts at making the decision of whether they accept one of the candidates or reject them both.
If no new cabinet is formed in the defined period, the president will have the right to dissolve parliament and announce new elections. So Filat, in fact, has lost his post (he still holds the office of prime minister until a new head of government is nominated, but it is a purely administrative function) which means he has found himself in a completely new position.
Former AIE members are still open for negotiations on a new coalition agreement but under one condition – that Filat withdraws his candidature for prime minister. It is very likely that he will find this condition unacceptable; in which case we can expect early elections, their results being very difficult to predict. It is possible that the oppositional PCRM would get a good result and the feuding parties of the former coalition would be unable to reach an agreement allowing them to form a new government without the support of other parties represented in parliament.A minority government headed by the Communists would then become quite likely. And this grouping is openly opposed to the European integration project and opts for joining the Russian Customs Union.
Such a scenario, however, is very remote and its likelihood is difficult to assess. But it is almost certain that if the current parliament proves unable to form a new government, early elections, which would then become a necessity, would have a negative impact on the negotiations with the EU, and would probably postpone the signing of the Association Agreement along with the prospect of abolishing visas for Moldovan citizens travelling to EU countries. So it may turn out that the Moldovan “success story” will have to do without a “happy ending”.
Translated by Tomasz Bieroń
Kamil Całus is an analyst with the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies.